Shooting with the Leica M9-P
Amadou Diallo, Barney Britton, Scott Everett | Product Reviews & Previews | Published May 6, 2012
|The Leica M9-P with the Summilux-M 50mm/1.4 lens.|
In light of the speculation surrounding the upcoming Leica press event in Berlin - expectation is high for an M10 announcement - a few of us here in dpreview's Seattle office took the opportunity to shoot briefly with the Leica M9-P and a selection of current M lenses. In this article we'll share our experiences using the Leica rangefinder system, not in the context of our normal studio tests and analyses, but out in the real world as a photographic tool.
Working with a rangefinder system
As anyone who's ever shot with a Leica M - or any rangefinder camera for that matter - can tell you, doing so is a vastly different photographic experience than shooting with an SLR. Setting manual focus via a 'focussing rectangle' located in the center of the optical viewfinder means that you'll often be using a focus-recompose technique or relying on zone focusing with the lens stopped down to a relatively narrow aperture.
And unlike the 'tunnel-vision' of an SLR, a rangefinder lets you look beyond the scene, with framelines superimposed in the viewfinder.
Seen through the viewfinder, the outer framelines shown here represent a 35mm field of view. These are paired with 135mm field of view framelines visible towards the center of the image.
With a rangefinder you turn the focus ring of the lens until objects in the the center 'focussing rectangle' (shown here in white) appear in perfect alignment in the viewfinder.
Experienced rangefinder shooters can work surprisingly quickly even without all of the electronic focusing aids and multiple metering modes that come standard on other modern cameras. Seeing beyond the edges of the 'frame' allows you to anticipate action and for many, triggers a much more critical sense of composition, in which more options are likely to be considered before releasing the shutter.
The Leica M9-P
The M9-P is a subtle revision of the Leica M9, which is itself the second generation of Leica digital rangefinders. Both cameras are identical in operation, image quality and in nearly all other technical specifications. The only significant hardware difference is an updated scratch-resistant rear LCD on the M9-P with an anti-reflective coating to reduce glare. In a nod to shooters who prefer discretion when carrying around a $8,000 camera, the M9-P also sees the removal of the famed red dot and the 'M9' moniker from the front camera plate.
|The Leica M9-P with (from left) the Summicron 90mm/2.0, Summilux 50mm/1.4, Summilux 35mm/1.4 and Super Elmar 21mm/3.4 lenses.|
The design and form factor of the M9-P hews closely to the template Leica has embraced since the start of the M series back in 1954. The M9 and M9-P are Leica's first full frame digital rangefinders. They feature an 18MP CCD sensor that forgoes an anti-aliasing (AA) filter. In theory, the omission of an image-softening AA filter should translate into greater detail resolution. The downside is that without this filter, the sensor is more prone to color moiré artifacts.
|A focal-plane shutter with metal blades...||...sits in front of an 18MP full frame CCD sensor.|
Of course, a big draw of any Leica rangefinder is its compatibility with the highly regarded (and very expensive) collection of Leica M-mount lenses. Known for their uncompromising optical standards and robust build quality, these lenses have gained a sterling reputation through the work of photographers such as Cartiér Bresson, Elliott Erwitt and Sebastião Salgado, to name but three. The M9 and M9-P provided M lens owners the long-awaited opportunity to use these optics with the field-of-view they were designed for, on a Leica digital rangefinder.
Handling and operation
The M9-P features a minimalist external control layout that gives you access to critical shooting parameters and nothing more. The viewfinder is largely free of electronic data, save for the shutter speed when in Aperture-priority mode, a temporary confirmation of any exposure compensation adjustment and over/under-exposure indicators in manual mode.
The camera's external controls fall nicely in hand. Build quality is exceptional, with a magnesium alloy frame and solid brass top and bottom plates adding welcome stability without feeling unnecessarily heavy. The camera's compact size means it can fit in a small shoulder bag, and its light weight - compared to a full frame DSLR - means that you won't need to to visit a chiropractor after a day spent walking with the camera around your neck. A bright viewfinder allows for quick and accurate focus even in low light. Engraved depth of field markings on the lenses make zone focusing relatively simple.
The M9-P embodies nearly all of the traits that make film-era Leica M models such great analog cameras. Concessions to the needs and conveniences related to digital camera use, however, are few and far between. The user interface design is where we struggle most with the M9-P. Every other 4-way controller we've ever seen includes an 'OK' button at its center. Here there is nothing but what looks to be a placeholder for a button that was going to go there at some point. Instead, you're forced to continually confirm settings with the 'Set' button which is rather inconveniently placed on the opposite side of the camera body. And the awkward process of adjusting ISO, in which you must continue holding the ISO button while using the 4-way controller or dial to navigate the choices, never ceased to be frustrating.
|Both the M9 (shown here) and the M9-P continue the Leica M tradition of a removable base plate. Users will become all too familiar with its removal, as both the SD card and the battery are housed beneath it.|
Also on the list of things we'd love to see improved upon in an M9-P successor is a higher resolution rear LCD screen. The 230k dot resolution of the M9-P is quite low by current standards and makes critical image evaluation virtually impossible. The camera is also rather slow in writing to the SD card, which means a delay in reviewing images even in single-shot mode. And removing the entire bottom plate cover just to get to the SD card can lose its charm rather quickly.
|Leica Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 ASPH @ f/4
Los Cabos, Mexico
Photographing with the Leica M9-P is undoubtedly a more deliberate process than with a modern autofocus camera. Yet its also one that gives you a more immediate and direct connection to the images you're creating. Manual focus lenses and an optical viewfinder that lets you see 'beyond' the frame with foreground and background elements in identical focus mean that you spend a lot of time consciously thinking about composition. Indeed, there are precious few camera settings, modes or electronic controls to otherwise occupy your thoughts. It's an admittedly slower, but more immersive process.
When photographing people, the M9-P can affect the behavior of your subject as well. The small form factor of a rangefinder body and Summilux lenses, coupled with the purposefully traditional design of the Leica M9-P and quiet operation, create a decidedly unintimidating presence for street photography and candid portraiture.
Its high price tag notwithstanding, the Leica M9-P simply doesn't look like a 'serious camera' to most people you're photographing. Its small size puts them at ease and also makes it easier to engage in conversation while shooting as the camera/lens combo does not obscure your entire face. On more than one occasion, after photographing someone, I was asked, 'Is that a good camera?'; a question I never get with my much larger Canon 5D.
|Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH @ f/9.5
The lack of an image-blurring AA filter in front of the M9-P's 18MP CCD sensor, combined with high quality Leica M lenses results in highly detailed images that can provide impressively sharp A3+ prints.
A relatively compact camera system has more obvious benefits, of course. An M9-P, along with the 21mm/3.4 Super-Elmar, 35mm/1.4 Summilux and 90mm/2.0 Summicron lenses makes an ideal kit for travel photography that fits in a small photo bag and is still comfortable to carry along on a full day of shooting. Add to that an 18MP full frame sensor and you've got a a fair amount of resolution for detailed landscape images along with the option to separate your subject from the background at medium to wide apertures.
The M9-P is not without its flaws, quirks and questionable design decisions. Changing ISO is a common task that should require much less coordinated effort than it does here. The low resolution of the rear LCD screen coupled with a maximum magnification view that actually makes the image appear slightly softer than it really is, makes judging critical sharpness virtually impossible in the field. And the menu system, with its non-heirarchical list of options seems especially lacking alongside most any camera made in the last 10 years.
In general, I found the metering system to be somewhat on the conservative side. In scenes of moderate-to-high contrast, the camera tends to favor underexposure. I often found myself boosting exposure compensation when shooting outdoors under clear skies.
And not even its most ardent fans would claim high ISO performance as a strength of the M9-P. While full frame offerings from both Canon and Nikon present eminently usable files at ISO 6400, the M9-P struggles to deliver noise-free images beyond ISO 800.
But for me, the M9-P is first and foremost a conduit through which to gain access to Leica's highly regarded M lenses. Color rendition and tonality of the three lenses I used most frequently - the 21mm/3.4 Super-Elmar, 35mm/1.4 Summilux and 90mm/2.0 Summicron - were nothing short of superb. I was less impressed with the camera's default JPEG processing in terms of sharpness and noise reduction at higher ISO settings. In these instances I was consistently able to achieve more pleasing results by processing the raw files through Lightroom 4 even at its default settings. I do applaud Leica for choosing the Adobe-developed 'DNG' specification for the camera's raw files, as opposed to a proprietary file format.
The Leica M9-P is a camera that imposes its way of working on you, rather than the other way around. And it is by no means an all-'rounder that will suit every style of shooting. But at low to medium ISO sensitivities, the images you are rewarded with are nothing short of superb.
I have something of a love/hate relationship with the Leica M series. I love the style, the quality of the engineering and just the all-round 'feel' of the cameras. I used an M3 for many years and fell completely in love with its large, bright viewfinder and contrasty focussing rectangle (still the best of any M camera in my opinion) and the almost silent shutter release.
It hardly needs saying that Leica knows how to make lenses, but the Leica experience is about more than just top-quality metal and glass, it's about the little things - the embossed leather lens pouches, the vented lenshoods, even the plastic PC sync socket covers look beautiful! Leica's rangefinders are desirable objects built to an extremely high standard, and they're priced accordingly.
Leica's M-series rangefinders are arguably the last great manual focus cameras - or at least the last great small format manual focus cameras. Using a Leica M is unlike using any other camera, and using a digital M like the M9 and M9-P is different again. Rangefinders demand a more deliberate (I won't say slower) approach to picture-making and personally, I find that I just get different pictures when I shoot with one. Not better necessarily, than I'd expect from a DSLR, just... different.
But there are downsides to the Leica experience, too, and I don't just mean the cost of building a system. Not even the most ardent Leica fanatic would argue that a camera like the M9 comes close to matching the versatility of an equivalently-priced DSLR outfit, and to say that shooting with a rangefinder takes some getting used to would be a dramatic understatement.
But I don't want to start sounding negative rangefinders have some definitely strengths compared to SLRs - they don't have a mirror so there are fewer potential causes of noise or vibration at the point of shutter release, and the optical viewfinder is basically just a window, so it's always nice and bright (or at least as bright as the environment in which you're shooting).
Unlike an SLR, where manual focussing can be very tricky in poor light, focussing a rangefinder is comparitively quick and easy. Those photographers that haunted the jazz clubs of the 1950s and 60s with their Leicas weren't carrying them because they wanted to look cool - their equipment was quieter, less obtrusive and more usable than contemporary SLRs.
But writing that makes me realise that this is the problem with talking about the M system - you always seem to end up talking about the past. The digital Leica Ms of today - the M8, M8.2 and the current M9 varients - are very different cameras to the groundbreaking M3 or the justly-famed M6 in some ways but in others, they're frustratingly similar.
Removing the base of the camera to load film in an M-series is awkward, but it's fine - all part of the experience. I wouldn't want to trade the uniquely solid lozenge-shape of the film Leicas for the sake of the convenience of a 'clamshell' film-loading door. But do the digital M-series really have to be loaded in the same way? What possible reason is there to have to remove the entire base of the camera to replace memory card and battery, beyond design nostalgia?
I suspect there may be technical reasons why Leica does not offer live view in its digital M-series models, but it is annoying nonetheless that I could get more precise focussing and framing from my 1953-vintage M3 than I can from the M9. 'How so?' you ask. Well, there was a door in the back of the M3 (and subsequent film M models) specifically designed to allow access to the film plane, so you could place a sheet of ground glass in there for critical focussing and composition. Now admittedly I've never done that, but that's not the point - the point is that the need of some customers for more critical focussing and composition than could be achieved using the viewfinder alone was recognised by Leica in the 1950s.
There are other frustrations about using the digital M-series cameras too - the teasingly subtle exposure compensation indicator in the viewfinder and a 'gray-on black' menu system spring to mind, but after a while you get used to both.
Something that I've never got used to about the digital M-series though is the woefully poor LCD screen on the back of them. A resolution of 230,000 dots is shamefully low considering the enormous cost of the cameras, but more importantly, it's inadequate for critical analysis of focus. Would these issues stop me buying one if I had the cash? I have to say that yes, they would. But if Leica upgraded the screen, overhauled the GUI, developed a genuinely 'discreet' shutter and added live view I'd start saving up immediately.
Thanks to Damien Demolder for permission to use some of these images in this article.
|Leica Elmarit-M 21mm f/3.4 ASPH @ f/8
Abandoned Church, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota (Eric Becker)
Scott Everett and Eric Becker
Seattle-based documentary and commercial director Eric Becker, recently joined dpreview's own Scott Everett on a weeklong trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, where they are working together on a short film. Filming entirely with Canon DSLRs and lenses, they brought along the Leica M9-P as a 'change of pace' camera for shooting stills to document their experience. Eric and Scott, both Canon shooters, share their thoughts on what it was like to photograph with the M9-P.
The M9-P is beautiful because it's simple. There's an elegance to having it dangling from your shoulder. If I had to chose one camera to bounce across Europe with this would be it. And not just because it would make me look more sophisticated than I am. Extended time in Europe means I would be on vacation. Two things I would not want with me are my iphone or a video-capable DSLR. As a director, my working hours are spent with those devices in constant use. And that's why I love the M9-P; it's pure. Clients can't email me on it, I can't use it to update my facebook page, and it does not shoot 1080p24. It's 'just' a camera, and a remarkably well-handling one at that. Yes, the screen is terrible for reviewing photos. Its menu interface is cryptic. The shutter makes this loud, drawn out noise. It can't shoot faster than 2fps. It's hard (for me) to focus. These are the reasons that I am completely in love with it.
It's almost as if...you have to think about the photo you are making. I've shot some of the best photos of my life using it for the simple reason that it allows me to enter a type of shooting where I'm forced to pay attention. In a world where we're so distracted by images, where apps like Instagram are starting to define an era of ubiquitous social photography, I believe it is more important than ever to be able to enter a thoughtful, introspective space when composing images. That's what the M9-P allows me to do.
|Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH @ f/4
The interior of a house in Manderson, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota (Eric Becker)
My experience with the camera mirrored Eric's to a large degree. The M9-P's elegance stems in large part from its simplicity. No bells and whistles. No distractions. And this had a discernible effect on my shooting.
Typically, if I have access to a 'fast' lens I can't resist shooting wide open a lot of the time, which of course leads to an excessively narrow depth of field and ultimately a bunch of shots lost due to slightly missed focus. Yet, when shooting with a lens like the Summilux-M 50mm/1.4, and using the rangefinder patch on the M9-P, I actually increased my ratio of keepers to rejects. How? Using a rangefinder to manually focus is a slower process, which forces me to take a little more time to frame my shots, and identify more specifically the area where I want to place focus; a generally more thoughful, contemplative process. Then there's the fact that, even wide open, the Summilux is ridiculously sharp. With the M9-P I take fewer photos than I would with my DSLR, but come away with a higher ratio of in-focus and extremely sharp results.
|Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH @ f/1.7
Vintage truck, Packwood, WA (Scott Everett)
|Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH @ f/4
Rolling hills just outside of the Badlands, South Dakota (Scott Everett)
|Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH @ f/11
Alder Lake, Washington (Scott Everett
Of course, a competent autofocus system can produce the same hit rate, but the Leica M9-P simply provides a different type of shooting experience; one that forces me to consider options before pressing the shutter button. Don't get me wrong, I love my Canon EOS 5D Mark II. Paired with a 50/1.4 or 35/1.4 it's more than enough camera for most of my needs. But for certain types of shooting, if I had the option to take an M9-P instead, I probably would.
|Leica Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH @ f/1.4
Eric Becker caight mid air (Scott Everett)
|Leica Summilux-M 35mm f/1.7 ASPH @ f/1.7
Portrait of a metalworker (Scott Everett)
Over the years I've read and participated in many forum arguments about the limitations of a rangefinder, the cost of a Leica, or the 'look' of its M-series lenses. There's no getting around the fact that even if you don't require autofocus, versatile metering options and other advantages of a modern DSLR, a Leica M9-P/Summilux combo, at $12,000 is a purchase that is difficult to rationalize. But each time I look through the images I've taken on the M9-P, and remember the shooting experiences I've had with it, I keep wanting to reach for it, and go shooting again.
'Real World' Samples gallery
There are 30 images in this samples gallery - a mixture of default JPEGs and processed raw files. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.
Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. Because our review images are now hosted on the 'galleries' section of dpreview.com, you can enjoy all of the new galleries functionality when browsing these samples.
|Leica M9/M9-P Samples - posted May 5th 2012|